Cuenca’s mercados are perpetual motion machines of commerce — and no place for the faint of heart
By Deke Castleman and David Morrill
Although Cuenca’s nine major mercados have been hard-hit by the pandemic, they are slowly reestablishing their prominence in the city’s day-to-day commercial life. Lively, vibrant, and bountiful, they are once again selling 300 to 400 percent more produce and meats as such upscale supermarkets as Coral and Supermaxi.
Of the three mercados in the historic district, two are large and one is small.
The one most tourists visit and where many expats shop, is Diez de Agosto, at the west end of Calle Larga near the corner of Tarqui. The other big one, Nueve de Octubre, is nine blocks away, at the corner of Sangurima and Hermano Miguel, at the west side of Civic Plaza, which hosts artisans’ fairs and public performances.
Diez de Agosto is a sprawling two-story building, while Nueve de Octubre is a slightly more compact three-story affair with a parking garage underneath.
Both Diez de Agosto and Nueve de Octubre are packed to the rafters with vendors, the typical small business you find all over Ecuador; statistics we’ve seen indicate that upwards of 50 percent of Ecuadorians work for themselves, many of them growing and selling food. The markets sell fruits and vegetables, meat, grains and beans, bread and pastries, household goods, clothes, and sundries; both markets have large food courts serving fresh fruit and vegetable juices, breakfast, almuerzos, and prepared snack foods.
The first time you visit, you’ll be overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells, and the vast number of vendors and choices of food and other things: big cuts of meat hanging from hooks; headless chickens in wooden crates, their feet sticking up, clawing at the heavens; sausages strung across countertops and hanging from rafters; whole fish (cut to size by request); shellfish, including live purple crabs in season; eggs of all kinds and colors; spices and herbal remedies; two dozen different varieties of potatoes; a half-dozen varieties of bananas and plantains; several mango types; starchy yuca and hairy coconuts; avocados by the ton; white and yellow pineapples; green juice oranges; mini-limes piled in a pyramid; plus fruit you’ll recognize, such as strawberries, blackberries (called moras), cherries (called cerezas), watermelons and cantaloupes; the fruit that you won’t recognize, like the exotic maracuyá (passion fruit), and babaco, pitajaya, guanábana, and cherimoya; along with broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, cucumbers, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, peas, radishes, celery, green beans, lettuce, chard, cabbage, ginger, garlic, parsley, cilantro, basil, cedrón, and on and on.
Then, there are the vendedores selling grains, dried beans, flour, pasta, flowers of all local kinds, large slabs of unsweetened chocolate, packaged goods that are bagged locally, though some are boxed and branded, plus household goods like oils, utensils, toilet paper, detergent, towels, and on and on.
On the upper level of Diez de Agosto, there’s an aisle of indigenous remedies for what ails you, much of it plants harvested at lower elevations. Beside coca leaves and bagged teas to give you an energy boost, the vendors are said to keep several hallucinogenics plants behind the counter for those seeking higher levels of consciousness.
At Diez de Agosto, Nueve de Octubre and the Rotary Market two blocks to the east, indigenous healers, most of them women, will beat and smoke the demons out of paying customers on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Called cleansings, the healers lash the afflicted with a variety of vegetation, blow cigarette smoke at them and, for good measure, spit a spray of firewater in their faces. At Diez de Agosto, the ritual is a hit with foreign tourists.
Centro’s smaller mercado, Tres de Noviembre, is on the corner of Coronel Talbot and Mariscal Lamar, a couple blocks north of Plaza San Sebastian, at the west end of the historic district. Less bustling and perhaps a little friendlier than the larger operations, this market also features vendors who post signs with the names and prices of their produce, which provides a good introduction to availability and costs.
Even though it’s not in Centro, no review of Cuenca’s mercados would be complete without a discussion of Feria Libre.
This isn’t your cute little neighborhood mercado; it’s a sprawling hard-core mini-city of commerce, so vivid that even long-term expats feel like they’re walking through a movie set when they shop here. If Carl Sandburg were alive and living in Cuenca, he’d write a poem about it. You will see few expats or tourists there.
Known officially as El Arenal, Feria Libre this is an enormous (about five acres in all) indoor-outdoor mercado, where farmers bring their crops to sell to the public. Out front on Av. Las Americas, the traffic is chaotic, and Cuenca’s new tram tram runs down the medium, moving slowly to avoid the drunks, dogs and old ladies.
Feria Libre not only sells all the fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, and dry goods of the smaller mercados, but also live chickens, pigs, cuy (guinea pigs), small birds, and a goat or two, along with puppies and kittens (for pets, we presume, although a new animal protection ordinance aims to provide more humane treatment).
There’s also an enormous interior maze of tightly packed little shops selling shoes, clothes, underwear, back packs, cell phones, pots and pans, electronics, haircuts, toys and dolls, perfume, curtains, cookware, plastic-ware, wood products, sunglasses, hats, and lots of stuff about which you have no clue.
Although the market is open seven days a week, Wednesday is especially busy when the large plaza to the south is packed with clothing vendors and buyers. And it’s not just vendors under rain and sun tarps (while you’re walking around, watch that you don’t take out one of the guy ropes with your neck or nose). Produce sellers squat on the sidewalks and at street corners. This is technically illegal, so from time to time the police make them move.
Some squatters make it easier on themselves by selling from wheelbarrows without paying market rent. It’s upscale squatting: When it’s time to move, they just roll their wares to another location. Of course, cars, pickups, and delivery trucks are triple-parked.
By the way, the wheelbarrowers are also prominent in El Centro, within a few blocks of Parque Calderon. Their produce is usually fresher than what you can buy at the supermarkets, and cheaper. The a source of continuing complaints from marketeers who follow the rules.
No matter how many times you’ve been to Feria Libre on Wednesdays, you tend to walk around stunned at the size and scope of commerce going on — both legal and illegal (homemade hooch, variety of drugs and the occasional woman of ill-repute are available for sale).
You need to be beware of pickpockets at Feria Libre; rest assured that they are ever-alert to that occasional confused gringo who ventures onto the grounds, as well as to careless Ecuadorians. And whatever you wear, don’t include jewelry in your attire; it will be ripped off, often painfully.
Although it is true of all of Cuenca’s mercados, Feria Libre is especially no place for the faint of heart. If, on the other hand, you’re up for a little adventure, it may be just the place.